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“There is no such thing as society”

published 9 February 2016 updated 9 February 2016
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Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society.” That phrase made the political point that people should take care of themselves and their families and not look to government to do it. In other words, in that context, “society” was the same as “government”.

More than a quarter century later, but in a larger and less political context, it might be useful to ask ourselves whether there is, indeed, such a thing as society. The cohesion that is so vital for its existence seems to be weakening.

One has the impression, at times, of living in a centrifuge that separates, divides, atomizes, and polarizes? There seems to be a growing distrust of government and social institutions. Have we moved from healthy skepticism to destructive cynicism?

Part of this unraveling effect may be related to the deployment of the Internet. Are we replacing a society composed of institutions with a myriad of networks? The Internet provides an avalanche of information “sorted” by its purveyors and enables all of the vehicles of social networking. But, that combination of information and links does not necessarily mean either greater understanding or real communication. And, it does not automatically contribute to democracy.

The technical means exist to create multiple realities; “boutique” realities, if you will. It can be a way of tuning out, not tuning in; of avoiding engagement. It can replace exchange with having one’s views, no matter how bizarre and hateful they may be, comforted and reinforced by self-selected others. Even when those little, contained realities are not dangerous, they detract from “normal” social life.

The context for that drift is another “mechanism”; the market. It, and its actors, have an “ideological” effect and influence that discourages collective reflection and action.

Even the concept of a “public” that cares about the common good and has the capacity to make democratic decisions may be weakening. That undermines public service values and appreciation of the value of public services.

Rebuilding a collective sense and understanding of positive values is not simple. It is not a task that can be entrusted to education in isolation. It requires long-term, public policy strategies that go beyond adapting to changes in technology and simply accepting and absorbing their unfortunate side effects.

Internet dangers will not be corrected with a “Luddite” approach. However, a debate is needed about whether the Internet should be master or servant. Is the Internet a tool to be used for constructive purposes or a pre-ordained, unstoppable, uncontrollable tsunami washing over society? There should be public discussion that includes the education world about shaping the use of this important tool rather than leaving all the critical choices to the corporations that have designed, developed, and profit from it.

The Internet is not, of course, the only force that endangers the cohesion of society. There are a plethora of unrelated divisions and tensions in society that may be amplified, but are not created online. And, it is in that larger context that a well-rounded education is vital if societies are to heal and come together.

Professional teachers must lead if there is to be such a thing as society. There are no prescriptions or detailed road maps. One builds respect through showing respect: Tolerance comes from tolerance. And, peace comes from resolving conflict rather than stifling it. Listening, independent thinking, free discussion and other essential life skills must be learned. They cannot be “clicked”.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Re-weaving the fabric of society, restoring trust and credibility, resurrecting debate, building understanding and community, and giving new life to fundamental values requires education focused precisely on those most vital human characteristics that cannot be counted.

The very best practices and most dedicated education personnel, on their own, cannot build healthier, stronger and more coherent societies. They cannot replace fear with hope. They cannot dislodge desperation with dignity or breathe new life into our democracies. However, it is unimaginable that such progress can or will take place without good quality, accessible education.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.